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Simonides of Ceos

Simonides of Ceos (c. 556-469 BC), Greek lyric poet, was born at Iulis in the island of Ceos[?]. During his youth he taught poetry and music in his native island, and composed paeans for the festivals of Apollo.

Finding little scope for his abilities at home, he went to live at Athens, at the court of Hipparchus, the patron of literature. After the murder of Hipparchus (514), Simonides withdrew to Thessaly, where he enjoyed the protection and patronage of the Scopadae and Aleuadae (two celebrated Thessalian families). An interesting story is told of the termination of his relations with the Scopadae. On a certain occasion he was reproached by Scopas for having allotted too much space to the Dioscuri in an ode celebrating the victory of his patron in a chariot-race. Scopas[?] refused to pay all the fee and told Simonides to apply to the Dioscuri for the remainder. The incident took place at a banquet. Shortly afterwards, Simonides was told that two young men wished to speak to him; after he had left the banqueting room, the roof fell in and crushed Scopas and his guests (Cicero, De oratore, ii. 86). There seems no doubt that some disaster overtook the Scopadae, which resulted in the extinction of the family. After the battle of Marathon Simonides returned to Athens, but soon left for Sicily at the invitation of Hiero, at whose court he spent the rest of his life.

His reputation as a man of learning is shown by the tradition that he introduced the distinction between the long and short vowels (ε, η, ο, ω), afterwards adopted in the Ionic alphabet which came into general use during the archonship of Eucleides (403). He was also the inventor of a system of mnemonics (Quintilian xi. 2, n). So unbounded was his popularity that he was a power even in the political world; we are told that he reconciled Thero and Hiero on the eve of a battle between their opposing armies. He was the intimate friend of Themistocles and Pausanias the Spartan, and his poems on the war of liberation against Persia no doubt gave a powerful impulse to the national patriotism. For his poems he could command almost any price: later writers, from Aristophanes onwards, accuse him of avarice, probably not without some reason. To Hiero's queen, who asked him whether it was better to be born rich or a genius, he replied " Rich, for genius is ever found at the gates of the rich." Again, when someone asked him to write a laudatory poem for which he offered profuse thanks, but no money, Simonides replied that he kept two coffers, one for thanks, the other for money; that, when he opened them, he found the former empty and useless, and the latter full.

Of his poetry we possess two or three short elegies (Fr. 85 seems from its style and versification to belong to Simonides of Amorgos, or at least not to be the work of our poet), several epigrams and about ninety fragments of lyric poetry. The epigrams written in the usual dialect of elegy, Ionic with an epic colouring, were intended partly for public and partly for private monuments. There is strength and sublimity in the former, with a simplicity that is almost statuesque, and a complete mastery over the rhythm and forms of elegiac expression. Those on the heroes of Marathon and Thermopylae are the most celebrated. In the private epigrams there is more warmth of colour and feeling, but few of them rest on any better authority than that of the Greek Anthology. One interesting and undoubtedly genuine epigram of this class is upon Archedice, the daughter of Hippias the Peisistratid, who, "albeit her father and husband and brother and children were all princes, was not lifted up in soul to pride." The lyric fragments vary much in character and length: one is from a poem on Artemisium[?], celebrating those who fell at Thermopylae, with which he gained the victory over Aeschylus; another is an ode in honour of Scopas (commented on in Plato, Protagoras, 339 b); the rest are from odes on victors in the games, hyporchemes, dirges, hymns to the gods and other varieties. The poem on Thermopylae is reverent and sublime, breathing an exalted patriotism and a lofty national pride; the others are full of tender pathos and deep feeling, combined with a genial worldliness. For Simonides requires no standard of lofty unswerving rectitude. "It is hard," he says (Fr. 5), "to become a truly good man, perfect as a square in hands and feet and mind, fashioned without blame. Whosoever is bad, and not too wicked, knowing justice, the benefactor of cities, is a sound man. I for one will find no fault with him, for the race of fools is infinite. ... I praise and love all men who do no sin willingly; but with necessity even the gods do not contend." Virtue, he tells us elsewhere in language that recalls Hesiod, is set on a high and difficult hill (Fr. 58); let us seek after pleasure, for "all things come to one dread Charybdis, both great virtues and wealth" (Fr. 38).

Yet Simonides is far from being a hedonist; his morality, no less than his art, is pervaded by that virtue for which Ceos was renowned--self-restraint. His most celebrated fragment is a dirge, in which Danae, adrift with the infant Perseus on the sea in a dark and stormy night, takes comfort from the peaceful slumber of her babe. Simonides here illustrates his own saying that "poetry is vocal painting, as painting is silent poetry." Of the many English translations of this poem, one of the best is that by JA Symonds in Studies on the Greek Poets. Fragments in T. Bergk, Poetae lyrici Graeci; standard edition by FW Schneidewin (1835) and of the Danae alone by HL Ahrens (1853). Other authorities are given in the exhaustive treatise of E. Cesati, Simonide di Ceo (1882); see also W Schroter, De Simonidis Cei melici sermpne (1906).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.



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